Major Arcana: The Coward by Ani Tatintsyan

Or THE COWARD by Ani Tatintsyan

After one of his Adderall benders, Van decided that he needed an entirely new perspective on life. The old one wasn’t working and he felt like a fool wrecking his nervous system and starting fights with his loved ones when they triggered his notions of “self-doubt.” Well, maybe you should doubt yourself, his mother had once said.

His old perspective on life wasn’t working not just because he was hopelessly addicted to amphetamines, but also because he was hopelessly addicted to limits, to unobtainables, to things out there, in psychoanalytic terms, he was addicted to “The Lack.” He knew this because he framed his life by everything he wanted but “couldn’t have” and he was beginning to think he liked staying within this frame and he liked preserving himself within this frame, safe and untouched. This made him a coward. He tried to visualize this word: coward. Yes, this is what he was. At first, the word scared him but as he kept it stiff and erect in his mind, it became less threatening and more comforting. To define is to disarm.

Something about Van we haven’t mentioned yet is that he was in ACADEMIA. Fitting. An institution that removed one from the precarity of lived experience and placed him, instead, in the realm of “studies.” He wondered if after all was said and done, Academia was for cowards. Yes, it made sense, suddenly everything in his life–every decision–was coming up to the surface; naked, and revealing historic accounts of feeble attempts at self-preservation. And here it was, he thought, alright.

Academia was all he knew, so in order to understand this word, this idea, he sat down and tried to research and write about “The Coward” as an archetypal figure. What purpose did the cowardly instinct serve? And did this figure have any redeeming qualities?

As he researched, it became increasingly clear that “The Coward” (referred to from here on out as simply The Coward) was the only archetype whose primary relationship was to fear. Other archetypes also dealt with fear but only as an obstacle towards a goal or a mission, while The Coward stopped at fear, nothing further was possible or even desirable. Fear was the frame!

Fear plagues our lives, it eats away at us, he wrote. It was true but what else could he say? The Coward, as an archetype, was interesting because cowardice was not just the absence of courage, cowardice was a moral failing, everyone knew that. Did everyone know that? It didn’t matter. He didn’t probe further. He stopped. Walking to the kitchen to make a fresh pot of coffee, he noticed his ex-girlfriend’s tarot deck + kit underneath some unread books at the bottom of his bookshelf. He had seen the deck + kit before but hadn’t noticed it in months since she left him and noticing it now for the first time he was compelled to pull it out, open it and investigate.

Van’s ex-girlfriend was very into “spirituality,” which he thought was too occult for his liking although he wasn’t a particularly religious person and come to think of it his mother often called him a godless man. Thinking of his ex-girlfriend now he remembered she would take the tarot deck + kit out and ask him questions like, “What time were you born?” to which he would reply, “Dude, none of your fucking business.” Come to think of it, he was pretty rude to her, especially at the end of their relationship, perhaps due to the crazy amounts of Adderall he was taking. He never did tell her what time he was born, and the truth was he didn’t know. His Soviet birth certificate didn’t have a timestamp and when he asked his mother she said it was around 3pm but wasn’t sure.

His ex, whose name was Melody, was a charming and cheerful girl. Van’s moodiness didn’t even affect her as much as it probably should have. According to her, she lived her life “by the spirit” she would often advise Van to differentiate between the mind and the spirit and would tell him things like: “your thoughts are not you” etc. Her jovial disposition increasingly began to get on Van’s nerves.

He remembered Melody explaining the tarot deck to him. She told him that the description of each card had its upright version and its reversed version, meaning that each card, no matter what the word meant, had two sides. For example, The Fool was seen as an archetype of thoughtlessness, recklessness, and stupidity but it was also a card of innocence, new beginnings, and the freedom of spirit. Similarly, a card like Strength naturally meant courage and influence while simultaneously, its image reversed, meant the opposite: depleted energy and self-doubt.

The Coward could easily be in the Major Arcana, he thought, now, as he remembered this.

Thinking of Melody reminded Van of a familiar feeling of self-loathing, a feeling often associated with the failure of their relationship. Melody, during one of their last fights, cited his “faithlessness” as the reason for their misery. He mistook this as an accusation of being unfaithful, which wasn’t true…but he would later realize that there was a distinction.

The fight started the night after they had attended a party together. According to Melody, at the sight of interesting people and beautiful women, Van did not actively present as a couple. She further accused him of pretending not to know her when she walked up to him talking to a woman, a B-list actress.

“You didn’t pay me any attention!” she said to him later that night.
“I see you every day!” was his response.

Was Melody threatened? Was she insecure? Did this trigger his impulse to cast her aside? If she didn’t believe she was good enough how could he?

She told him her therapist said that women want to be contained, a word that after much research presented itself as a concept of security. “The container is the form and shape that the Masculine brings, as a gift, to the outpouring of life, energy and chaos that is the gift of the Feminine,” he read online. Melody said that Van’s container wasn’t solid enough for her, it was shaky and pliable. She said that all their problems were because of his faithless nature, and that this wasn’t just how he approached his relationship, but how he approached everything.

He understood now that part of her grievance was that he didn’t CLAIM her. He didn’t claim anything. He was afraid of the relationship itself since he saw it as a marker, a signifier of who he was, what he wanted, what he believed in, what he found meaningful or beautiful. The relationship itself was a claim to a decided reality. And yes! It was true! Indeed he wasn’t sure, he had doubts, he was waiting for someone else to say that she was good enough to be claimed. Perhaps, he thought, the right woman would help stop this cowardice, or rather, to transform it, since he was beginning to look at cowardice as an archetype, like the ones in the tarot deck, the energy of which could be transformed into a productive outcome.

Van felt an inexplicable motivation to finish this project.

Justice for the coward!
Justice for the coward!
Justice for the coward!

He thought that perhaps his new life was already beginning to form itself, like when your blood cells start to clump together and clot, protecting a wound and preventing further blood loss.

Van texted his thesis advisor and told him that he was changing his thesis from:


to simply:


His thesis advisor texted back within minutes: “what?”

The Coward was beautiful. His beauty hung around his neck like a ball and chain and his cowardice lent itself beautifully to vanity. He tried to preserve himself, his youth, his body and behind this obvious vanity was the source of his cowardice.

The second definition of vanity is the quality of being worthless or futile.

Worthlessness…this was a leading trait of the coward, yes but…

What if the coward’s efforts at preservation were viewed as a type of aversion to progress? Was there any righteousness to this kind of conservatism?

As the coffee began making its way, Van was reminded of his weak nervous system.

In Greek mythology, Hermes, the messenger god on Mount Olympus, had a magic wand called a “Caduceus”, which was given to him by Apollo. The Caduceus symbolizes the spinal column, the central channel for a kind of “Psychic Force”, or nerve energy. “That guy’s got nerve,” they would say, (this is what The Coward didn’t have).

Van’s advisor texted him again: “Sounds Christian.”

Yes, maybe it was. In the book of Revelations the cowards go to hell with the murderers and the whores. The Coward lacked a moral nerve.

Van sent an email to a priest he knew: hi Peter, is cowardice a sin?

The priest replied immediately:

If you are a coward, that means you lack understanding of God’s love and you do not have trust in Him. God did not give us a spirit of fear; but of power and love (2 Timothy 1:7).  

Van replied back:

So being scared is a sin then?

The priest replied:

Being afraid is not a sin but a coward has let fear overcome him and as a result, has fallen short of being a faithful servant of God. Cowards run the risk of compromising the Word of God to avoid persecution and furthermore, they run the risk of compromising their values and morals to keep from ruffling feathers. 

Van immediately emailed back:

Thank you Peter, see you soon.

Closed the laptop. Walked outside. No, he ran outside.

Yes, the coward wants to preserve and yet the cowardly impulse exposes our faithlessness.

The infant who doesn’t want to leave the womb is just trying to preserve the conditions of his safe environment, he doesn’t know he will die if allowed to stay.

In Shakespeare’s Caesar, cowards die many times before their death but did they know that death is a door!? Yes, also fear is a door, whether one walks through it or not depends primarily on whether or not he has any desire beyond this door, on whether or not he has any desire to unravel mysteries.

Van remembered that when he was a kid, his little sister had a porcelain doll collection, still the creepiest thing he has ever seen. There were probably about 20 dolls in their little boxes. What was the point of these dolls? She never played with them. Thinking of them now, Van wondered if the fact that they were preserved, no use to them except to be seen, to be looked at added to their despicability.

Vision of doors and limits provided Van with a framework for his thesis:

The Coward teaches us that maybe Freud was wrong, there is a third drive that governs our lives. Not the sex drive nor the death drive, a secret third thing: the drive to do nothing, to stand still, to preserve time, the self, and the existing state of affairs. The Coward accomplishes this nothingness with the help of fear, his faithful accomplice.

As he continued writing, Van began to feel increasingly alienated from the archetype of The Coward. He knew he would finish this project and it would be good, better than anything he had ever done before, and in doing so he would rid himself of the coward’s curse.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Can’t be a porcelain doll, he thought.
Don’t be a porcelain doll.


Ani Tatintsyan is an Armenian-American writer. Her work is concerned with mythology, Judeo-Christianity, and psychoanalysis. She teaches Humanities at Fusion Academy.

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